If the Pope invited the prime minister's family to visit for the holidays, and sent a private jet to pick them up, would the Opposition be hinting at a breach of ethics? What if the invitation came from the Dali Lama?
It was announced this week, in a letter sent by Conservative MP Peter Kent, that the Conservatives will seek a criminal investigation into Justin Trudeau's December 2017 trip to the Aga Khan's private Caribbean island. This followed a Federal Court ruling ordering the lobbying commissioner to re-examine whether the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims violated the code for lobbyists when he extended the invitation to the Trudeau family. The case was brought before the Federal Court by Democracy Watch.
The way Peter Kent, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, and Democracy Watch keep pursuing Justin Trudeau about his family's visit with the Aga Khan is enough to make a person wonder a) if they don't understand that the current Aga Khan IV is globally revered by people of all faiths, or b) if they are so eager to score a few political points that they are willing to risk being perceived as Islamophobic.
Mind you, for people of a certain age, the name "Aga Khan" is associated with the Prince Ali Salman Aga Khan, known as Aly Khan, a son of Sultan Mahommed Shah. Mid-century, he was famous for loving fast horses and fast cars. He also had a reputation for seducing married women, one of whom was movie star Rita Hayworth, then also being courted by the Shah of Iran and Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis. For mid-century memories, "Aga Khan" may be a name from the tabloids.
However, Ali Khan's father, Sultan Mahommed Shah, Aga Khan III, (1877-1957) was a distinguished religious leader of the world's 10 to 15 million Ismaili Muslims, the liberal Islamic denomination whose members are usually in professions, commerce or business, to which Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi belongs. As with Christian groups like Quakers and Mennonites, world service is part of the Ismaili religion.
"The Ismaili Muslims are a global, multi-ethnic community whose members, comprising a wide diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities, live in Central Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and North America," explains the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) website.
Sir Sultan (the Aga Khans hold British citizenship) led his people in building strong communities wherever the South Asian diaspora scattered them. When he died in 1957, his will skipped over his wild son, Aly Khan, and unexpectedly named as his heir, his grandson, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, then only 20 years old. Since then, Prince Karim seems to have made every effort to live up to his destiny. Although he's been divorced three times, he's met each wife respectably.
To his followers, Prince Karim is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed, and holds the 49th Imamat, the top Ismaili religious post. When he was named to the Imamat, the Prince announced solemnly, "My religious responsibilities begin as of today."
But there's a wrinkle: "In Islam's ethical tradition, religious leaders not only interpret the faith but also have a responsibility to help improve the quality of life in their community and in the societies amongst which they live," explains the AKDN website.
Members of the Ismaili faith usually tithe, donating 10 percent or more of their income to the Imamat, funds intended to improve life in the poorest parts of the world, and to bring Ismailis out of dangerous regions, such as Tajikistan and Sudan. The Prince founded the AKDN in the 1980s to distribute those funds, by unifying an existing network. For 40 years, he has constantly directed and contributed its growth to what is now a $925 million a year humanitarian outreach program to the poorest parts of Africa and Asia.
These days, the AKDN employs 80,000 people working in 30 countries mainly in Africa and Asia, focussing on education and healthcare, among 10 departments that include culture and microfinance. Although projects tend to take place in mainly Muslim areas, that's not a requirement.
The AKDN often works in collaboration with other aid agencies whose values are in alignment, especially Canadian agencies. Indeed, the AKDN has worked so often with Canadian aid agencies that in 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made Prince Karim an honorary Canadian citizen, one of only five ever appointed. The Prince's voluminous list of other honours and awards includes 24 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, including Harvard, McGill, U of Toronto, and seven other Canadian universities.
In 2014, Harper invited Prince Karim to make a rare outsider's address to Parliament. The two then signed a Protocol of Understanding, spelling out a $100 million joint investment initiative called "The Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia," to improve the quality of life for more than a million people living in Asia and Africa.
Up until Andrew Scheer's complaint to the lobbying commissioner, then, Canada and the Aga Khan have been on very good terms. So the tone of Scheer's complaint was shocking to many. As Andrew Cohen noted in 2017, some comments in the House make the Aga Khan sound like "just another sly, low 'lobbyist,' a dime-store remittance man seeking 'privileged access' to a naif with the offer of a free holiday. It’s absurd!" he concluded.
Prince Karim is fabulously wealthy himself, of course, with a net worth estimated at between $800 million and $3 billion. He also inherited his grandfather's race horse stables, and has become a renowned race horse breeder. Rather than seeking more wealth or influence, he is known as a philanthropist, paying AKDN's expenses, for example, so that denomination members' donations can go entirely to benefit others.
The issue, the Court said, is that the Aga Khan Foundation employs a registered lobbyist, and the Aga Khan is listed as a foundation board member. The judge emphasized this is a theoretical point, not a suggestion that Justin Trudeau might influence the foundation to add the Aga Khan to its board -- which was wise, because the idea anybody could influence what role the Prince plays on the AKDN Board is ridiculous, risible and could be perceived as offensive.
One Calgary member of an Ismaili congregation scorned the idea that the PM had any influence over Prince Karim's position on the AK Foundation. "The AgaKhan Development Network belongs to His Highness The AgaKhan and His entire Family" she wrote in a message. "He is the Founding Chair and has been for 40 years since He established it. He has given so much to the Global development including Canada, that it is a shame politicians only see what is in front of their noses and nothing beyond."
Canada has more than 100,000 vocal, articulate, politically active Ismaili Muslims -- many of whom view the Aga Khan as He with a capital H -- and more than a million Muslims altogether. Thousands more immigrants are grateful to the AKDN for help received at home or on the journey.
Andrew Scheer and Peter Kent don't seem to understand or care that the way they has been carelessly denigrating the Aga Khan is liable to alienate a sizeable constituency of voters. Mind you, a person doesn't have to be Muslim to be offended by gratuitous slurs against one of the world's greatest living humanitarians -- just someone who cares about integrity.
Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004–2013.
I write this letter from my hotel room in Hyderabad with very deep love in my heart and hope in my soul that, one day, I may have the honour and privilege of standing in your holy presence. This letter is an expression of my gratitude to you for what you and your institutions have done for India and I wish to share this gratitude with my fellow citizens.
Born in 1987, I was raised in a Punjabi Hindu household and in a social circle where the general opinion of Muslims was not flattering. My understanding of Muslims was poor and I had never even heard of the Ismailis until a few years ago. All throughout my childhood, I did not know that the owner of the very store where my family purchased its groceries was an Ismaili Muslim, Tejani Uncle. Sadly, he passed away last year but I remember him fondly as a gentle soul, one who was no doubt inspired by your teachings and example. I have grown up listening to the Bollywood music of Salim and Sulaiman, but only recently learned that they are your followers and have produced music to honour your Jubilees and to display their love and affection for you. Like these two artists, Ismailis are strong contributors to Indian society, yet so few know about the Ismaili faith as a shining example of Islam. Like so many, I have grown up in complete ignorance about your good office, the Ismaili Imamat, and the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), despite your impactful activities in so many sectors across India: from operating schools and hospitals, to providing irrigation and other support to countless farmers, to building parks, protecting our national treasures and restoring historic monuments. You have been extremely generous with your resources and our entire country owes you a debt of gratitude.
Although cultural and religious diversity has been an irreversible historical reality of Indian civilization, I can say confidently that very few Indians actually know or understand what pluralism means and how important it is. Yet it was on Indian soil, back in April 2003, when you told us that: “Tolerance, openness and understanding towards other peoples' cultures, social structures, values and faiths are now essential to the very survival of an interdependent world… Pluralism is no longer simply an asset or a prerequisite for progress and development, it is vital to our existence.” In a world where the image of Muslims is being tarnished by extremists, you and your work and your enlightened guidance to humanity in the form of your speeches and publications serve as beacons of light and hope that Muslims and non-Muslims can live in peace, harmony and mutual respect. Although I grew up in Mumbai, I had never heard of the Prince Aly Khan Hospital, named after your late father. And I had no idea that your hospitals and clinics, under the umbrella of Aga Khan Health Services, have been providing affordable and, in many cases, subsidized health care to thousands of Indians for decades. And although my childhood home was a mere 15 minutes from the Yuwan Housing Society in Bandra, I had no idea that you and your late grandfather have been actively building and supporting housing societies in India for nearly a century. Today, affordable housing is a huge problem in Mumbai, as in other parts of India. This was perhaps something that you foresaw. Only now, with three decades of hindsight, can we see the astonishing wisdom behind your decision to seed-fund the plethora of Ismaili housing societies across Mumbai and other parts of India, some of which have appreciated in value more than 100-fold since inception. Many of these were spawned with proceeds from your Silver Jubilee and today they are more precious than diamonds in the era of your Diamond Jubilee. City dwellers in India, including myself, often forget that the overwhelming majority of Indians live in the rural areas. And us city dwellers take our fruits and vegetables for granted, usually never knowing where the produce comes from. Yet the plethora of suicides by farmers is a high profile issue today and a concern to many Indians. Fortunately, many farmers in India have been spared an undignified life due to your foresight and the work of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). The beneficiary profile and impact of the AKRSP in India is truly astonishing. Active in more than 2200 villages across three states, your work has benefited over 250,000 families and 11,200 village organizations. Transcending the bounds of a patriarchal society, the AKRSP has mobilized more women than men
Today, I live in Pune. It is a city where you and your family have deep historical ties. And though I have been visiting Pune several times a year since my early childhood, only last year did I visit the Aga Khan Palace. Previously, I had no idea that Gandhi’s beloved wife, Kasturba, was buried there. And I had no idea that it was your late grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahamed Shah, who impressed upon the British to allow Gandhi-ji to reside there when he was placed under house arrest. Today, the Aga Khan Palace is a tourist attraction but sadly its role in Indian history is little known. In this short letter, it would not be possible to cover all that you have done for India but there is one story that I found particularly heartwarming. When Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) was undergoing a political crisis and the lives of thousands of Indians living in that country was at stake, I understand that you walked into the Air India head office in Nairobi and chartered planes to evacuate all Indians from Zaire and give them safe passage to Mumbai – and all of this at your personal expense! In a world where politicians shout their achievements and deeds from rooftops, your example of quiet diplomacy and extending a helping hand to the marginalized and unsafe is truly remarkable, indeed awe inspiring
In closing, I wish to personally thank you, in however small measure, for all that you have done for mother India and her people. I understand that you love biryani and samosas, and perhaps one day you will permit me the honour of meeting you and cooking for you. In the meantime, however, I will send nandi (food offering) to your Jamatkhana in Pune, as I have done in the past when I lived in Bangalore.
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